If you’re after a PB, this might not be the race for you; but a tough course, stunning location and fantastic atmosphere make this a must do race for any triathletes bucket list. Challenge Wanaka was my first crack at an ‘iron distance’ race but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction…
We woke early to the sound of the wind gusting through the trees outside and all at once hopes of a flat mirror like lake to swim in went out the window. Temperature was also a bit of a concern for the day; the previous morning my fingers had almost frozen off on an early morning warm up ride, (which led to last minute rush from lots of competitors to pick up some cold weather gear at the local bike shops), not to mention the chilly 15 degree waters of lake Wanaka, (if you do this race a neoprene cap is recommended!). The lake was choppy, but thankfully the swim was kept at the full distance, (there was talk at the previous days briefing of cutting the swim in half if it was too rough… which would have been a real disappointment… after all no one wants to do a ‘nearly’ ironman).
So after the usual pre-race checks and rituals and after watching the pros shoot off like rockets 10 minutes before us, the clock struck 6:40 and we were off! Despite the choppy conditions the swim wasn’t ‘feeling’ too bad – the cold quickly became tolerable and I seemed to find a rhythm between the waves. But despite that I got out of the water look at my watch and see the shocking time of 1:26! Clearly not going as smoothly as it could be. The drama came thick and fast as much to my dismay my T1 bag was missing! This is really the last thing you want to deal with after a hard swim – after a few minutes searching with the great volunteers I spotted someone coming back out way clutching my bag – someone had grabbed my number by mistake. I refrained from using any foul language, (more out of relief than politeness) and made my way to the change tent.
The start of the bike felt hard, it’s amazing how much the cold from the swim can get into you and make your muscles go to sleep. Thankfully they air temperature was much better than the previous day or I really would have been in trouble. But after struggling over the first few hills, (climbs being a strong feature of the course) I found my rhythm and settled down to put my plan into action.
Now with the headwinds wind and hills, (both present in abundance) Wanaka would be a very easy course to overcook your bike on, (pushing too hard on the hard bits to try any maintain a goal speed or pace) but I did my best to keep a lid on my enthusiasm and stick to an RPE of about 75%. There are a couple of sections, (like the return from lake Hawea) where a brilliant tailwind can help you to speeds of an easy, (relatively anyway) 50kph; but these are interspersed with big stretches of riding into headwinds or trying to keep with bike stable in gusty crosswinds on the descents. And then there is the chip sealed and pretty bumpy road surface which can be fatiguing to ride on so a tire pressure of 10psi lower than normal is probably a good idea.
180km went by pretty quickly, largely down to the stunning backdrop acting as a distraction from the pain in my legs, and after a uneventful T2, (in which I was heartened to see that there weren’t that many bikes racked) I was out on the run. It’s amazing how fresh my legs felt but I did my best to listen to the pre-race advice of more experienced iron distance athletes and once again kept to a comfortable pace, all the while remembering to get fuel into me. If possible the run course seems even more spectacular than the bike, (or maybe you just have more chance to look around and take it in) and the support from the locals, who really do come out in force for the race, is fantastic! The constant undulations of the day meant my quads were really feeling it by the 30km mark, but the atmosphere really helped me to pull through and keep up a run, (perhaps not a fast one – but a run none the less) until the finish in the centre of Wanaka town.
Aside from the great race, one of the main reasons to come to Wanaka is the great pre and post-race atmosphere. The fact that it’s a ‘destination race’ means people tend to be around a few days before and after the race and because all the accommodation is filled with fellow triathletes it’s a great place to meet people to hang out with. So give yourself some time after the race to chill out, enjoy some great local beer and food and swap stories with your fellow athletes.
Defiantly a race I’ll be doing again.